Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Changing Fortunes

By Susan Ellis

JUNE 8, 1998:  Most of us can admit to a little bit of gloating when we see our high-school prom queen grow fat, or the captain of the football team working behind the counter of a convenience store. But what about them? How do they feel about falling from grace? This is the approach that Hope Floats takes, as a humiliated beauty queen returns to her tiny Texas town to face her peers.

Sandra Bullock plays Birdee Pruitt, the one time pride of Smithville, Texas, and Queen of Corn three years running. Since her days in Smithville, Birdee has moved to Chicago, married Smithville’s high-school football star, and had a child. It’s idyllic, but Birdee gets hers, and she gets it in a big way. The movie opens on the set of an Oprah/Ricki Lake-like talk show. The host, Toni Post (Kathy Najimy), tells the audience she loves life and then proceeds to express her zeal through an ambush. Birdee is brought out and presented to her best friend Connie (Rosanna Arquette), who tells her she loves her and she’s been sleeping with her husband.

With that, Birdee packs up her daughter Bernice (Mae Whitman) and hightails it back to her childhood home in Texas and to her slightly loopy mother Ramona (Gena Rowlands), who makes knick knacks and toys from the hides of various animals. Once in the confines of her home, Birdee aims to stay there until something happens, most suitably that her husband comes to get her. When her husband doesn’t show, Birdee is pushed into functioning as a mother and an adult by Ramona, who makes her go get a job and have little get-togethers with the hunky carpenter Justin Matisse (Harry Connick Jr.).

Along the way, Birdee runs into some hard truths: People are glad to see her back in Smithville, especially via a talk show; her daughter blames her for their situation; and her father, tucked away in a nursing home, doesn’t know who she is.

Sandra Bullock gets a boost from Harry Connick Jr. in Hope Floats.
It’s a bummer, but a Sandra Bullock-style bummer. Bullock hasn’t starred in a decent movie since While You Were Sleeping (all the way back in 1995), though she has been in some crummy ones (Two If By Sea, Speed 2). It’s been reported that Bullock agreed to be in Speed 2 contingent on having Hope Floats made, for which she serves as executive producer. For Bullock, the role of Birdee is something a little different from the apple-cheeked, lovably screwy, girl-next-door gigs that have been her bread and butter. But the stress here is on little. (It’s slightly amusing when Ramona first greets her returning daughter, with her fresh-scrubbed, clear skin and wavy, perfectly highlighted hair, by telling her she looks horrible. We should all look so bad.) Birdee is just an extension of what’s made Bullock famous – a woman with a fetching smile but with one hand dipping in despair.

Yet Hope Floats is certainly more complicated than the average Bullock fare, which usually has her stumbling into a situation that involves a bomb and a man in a tank top. The scenes pertaining to mother/daughter and father/daughter relationships are the most wrenching around, and it’s a credit to the actress Whitman who has the talent to express both rage and fear at such a young age. The movie also touches on the idea of personal growth. While her classmates have changed for the better or stayed the same for the worse, Birdee has lost that sparkle that made her special by trying to remain the same. It’s only by stepping back and out of her situation that she can rediscover who she needs to be.

Tucked within these scenes are moments that induce sheer boredom, such as the courtship of Justin and Birdee. Justin’s character is by far the weakest one. His purpose is to ground Birdee, to teach her to “breathe” as he puts it. But mostly his sensitive lug is, well, luggish, like he can’t wait to get his hands on her. There are also a few comic scenes thrown in for good measure, one of which, set to “I Can’t Get Next To You” is so hokey it’ll make you want to gag. And speaking of music, some of the songs on the soundtrack are old hits (such as “Stop in the Name of Love”) sung in a newfangled, slow way a la Ally McBeal. I hope this isn’t a trend.

So Hope Floats isn’t an entirely terrible movie and it isn’t entirely good – sometimes, that’s all you’re going to get.

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